We never saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway, nor did we get around to seeing the movie version of this musical. So our first taste of the demon barber of Fleet Street was the remarkably sharp new production currently at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre.
Granted, there’s no such thing as a “normal” premise for a musical play. By any standard, though the premise of Sweeney Todd is outrageous. The play’s hero, the barber Sweeney Todd (Stephen Tewksbury), has returned to late-eighteenth-century London obsessed with getting revenge on a corrupt judge who, years before, abducted and ravished Sweeney’s lovely young wife. Judge Turpin (James Van Treuren) had covered up his crimes by having Todd himself transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge.
Todd sets up his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop, hoping to lure the judge into his barber’s chair so he can ply a fatal razor on the judge’s throat. In the meantime, though, he strikes up a stomach-turning relationship with the brassy, vulgar Mrs. Lovett herself (Kristie Dale Sanders); Todd slits the throats of random customers and slides their bodies down a trapdoor into her kitchen. Mrs. Lovett incorporates the meaty parts of their corpses into meat pies and feeds to unsuspecting customers.
Here’s what you should know if you’re thinking of seeing this show:
1. The grisly business isn’t as stomach-turning as you might expect. Granted, throats are slit and customers sit at cafe tables clamoring for pastries made of human flesh. But the blood-shedding is minimal and stylized (especially compared to the oceans of blood that reportedly flowed in the movie version of Sweeney Todd). And of course the audience can’t actually smell or taste Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
Maybe we’re jaded and shock-proof after all the graphic violence we’ve seen on film for the last 35 years, but in any case Sweeney Todd doesn’t really press the envelope. We may be titillated, but we’re not revolted.
2. It’s not as terrifying as you might expect. Sweeney Todd isn’t a thriller, and it doesn’t have nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat qualities. And the villains in the play (in fact, all the characters are scoundrels)are not played as larger-than-life sociopaths; they don’t terrify us. Director Mark Cuddy didn’t go for shock value.
3. You’ll end up enjoying the music. Of course, the music of Stephen Sondheim is a far cry from the feel-good, sing-along anthems of Oklahoma or the sentimental song in Fiddler on the Roof. Sondheim doesn’t shy aware from dissonance or from startling melodic leaps. No hit songs came from Sweeney Todd.
But we liked the music — welcome relief from the bland, cliched numbers in popular musicals of recent years (think Wicked and Rent). Sondheim’s lyrics are perfectly fitted to the melodies, and the musical accompaniments are exquisite. We have only one real complaint. Why did Sondheim write duets in which the singers are singing different lyrics at the same time? The audience can’t understand either lyric.
4. It’s an good cast. Stephen Tewksbury, as Sweeney Todd, and Kristie Dale Sanders as Mrs. Lovett have fine singing voices and as a couple they are remarkably well-matched. (Their relationship is worth paying attention to; the middle-aged Mrs. Lovett has lascivious, even matrimonial, designs on Todd, but he has nothing on his mind but revenge.) We liked the singing of Daniel Bogart, who plays Todd’s friend Anthony Hope, and we especially enjoyed Roland Rusinek as the judge’s brutal strongman, Beadle Bamford.
We were disappointed only in Marissa McGowan as Todd’s daughter Johanna, whose diction was so poor that we simply couldn’t make out any of the lyrics of “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird.” We were sorry, incidentally, not to see any local actors in the cast.
We attended the last performance of Sweeney Todd before its official “opening,” and it wasn’t a good night for the sound crew. As the show opened with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the very first singer’s microphone wasn’t on (we heard him just fine anyway). The amplified voice of the second singer came as something of a jar.
Having decided to mike the lead actors, the sound designer evidently felt he needed to mike everyone in the chorus as well — another eight or ten voices. This went badly. The vocal mix was much too loud and resulted in distortion, so we didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics sung by the ensemble. Unfortunately, the orchestra (especially the electronic keyboard) was also over-amplified at various points during the show.
But why amplify the voices at all? GeVa Theatre (550 seats) just isn’t that large. None of these talented performers would have had difficulty projecting their solo singing voices throughout the hall, and amplifying the ensemble was not only unnecessary, but deleterious to the sonic effect. We were against it.